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The awkward case where you know more than your prof...


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Today I had my first experience as a graduate student where knowing more about a topic than a professor in one of my courses led to an academic etiquette quandary. Details obscured to protect egos.

Let's call the course "Plant Nutrient Absorption Analysis." My advisor used to teach the course as he is a leading expert in plant analysis, but students felt his version of the course was too hard, so it was given to Professor Bob instead.

Today we were covering a type of analysis that was invented by chemists but has been appropriated by many other fields, including plant biologists, geneticists, and physicists. Let's call it Method X. Incidentally, my advisor used to do chemistry work and worked in one of the labs that originally developed Method X, and was in fact an earlier pioneer of the method 25 years ago. Furthermore our lab recently designed a program to help extend the use of Method X into plant imaging data, and this method has become increasing popular in plant imaging in the last 10 years.

It clear that the Professor Bob's knowledge of Method X was fairly surface level - he knows what buttons to push in the program to use the method, but not how it works internally. He also presented Method X as if it was only used by biologists interested in nutrient absorption, and mentioned none of the history or the fact that my advisor helped invent the method.

Then a classmate asked specifically about Method X for plant imaging. Professor gave a weak, vague answer. I offered a more concrete example, presenting it as a re-frame of what he had said (trying to be respectful and polite). The professor asked more about how we use Method X in plant imaging and I gave a brief explanation. He then replied: "Huh. I'm not familiar with that. I'm not sure how that would actually work. I guess I'd need a more involved explanation." My classmate described his tone as "incredulous" and I think that's the right word for it. He sounded like he didn't believe me that plant imaging uses this method AT ALL. So not only did he not know about my advisor's work (not a big deal on it's own) he didn't even know that the method has been used in plant imaging for over 10 years.

This made me a lot more upset that it seemed like it should. I realized that I know more about this method than the professor and he probably finds that unnerving. I decided to treat it as a chance to share my enthusiasm for the method with him and perhaps slip in some education along with it. I approached him after class and mentioned how my advisor was involved with Method X when it was first invented by chemists, and how recent work in our lab includes writing a program to use Method X in plant imaging. He seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm but was still giving me the side eye whenever I mentioned Method X becoming a popular plant imaging analysis method.

So after class, I sent him a published article where we used the method coached in "look how cool this is."

Here's my question: my advisor has repeatedly expressed interest in how "Plant Nutrient Absorption Analysis" is going. I think he is a little skeptical of the new professor's ability to cover the material. If I tell him about the way Professor Bob covered Method X my advisor will probably go apoplectic because for someone in the same department as you to be totally unaware of probably the biggest achievement of your career is somewhat insulting. But yet I also feel that Prof. Bob, in addition to not knowing the history of the method and my advisor's involvement, did not do a great job of covering the material and that feedback is useful for the department. I know my adviser has some "pull" when it comes to choosing who teaches the course and what it would cover so it is relevant from a departmental perspective.

Still with me here? wink.gif So do I mention this to my advisor, knowing he would *want* to know but that it would also potentially cause departmental conflict? Or do I "protect" Professor Bob from the wrath of my advisor (who is senior to him in the department) and not say anything?

My loyalties ultimately lie with my advisor but I'm not sure if this is a "what he doesn't know won't hurt him" exception. Thoughts?

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Your advisor is obviously curious about how the class is going. Give him your honest answer without trashing Professor Bob. You haven't mentioned whether his knowledge is lacking in other aspects of plant nutrient absorption analysis. Is he competent in other class topics? If Method X's usage in plant imaging analysis is a side topic that is generally unrelated to plant nutrient absorption analysis, then I wouldn't be too hard on the guy. Unless his expertise is in plant imaging analysis, of course. As for how your advisor reacts to Prof. Bob's lack of knowledge in his colleague's work, that is between them. If your advisor chooses to broach the subject with Prof. Bob, then it is between them.

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Coming from someone in a totally unrelated field and noting that I have not even begun my first semester of graduate school yet, I have to say that I would let sleeping dogs lie.

Even if the amount of conflict from letting your advisor know would be minimal, it still seems a tad unnecessary since you've done all the appropriate legwork to fill in Prof Bob. Hopefully he will read that article and make changes to his lecture from this point on as needed, and saving the details may possibly spare some hurt feelings.

EDIT: Unless it is actually vital your classmates learn this information. If that information is hugely important to their future success, then of course someone needs to be made aware that IMPORTANT THINGS are not being fully covered.

Edited by PTPS
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Stay out of it, there is nothing to be gained by getting involved. This really didn't sound like a case of "critical knowledge not imparted", simply that Prof. Bob has a different expertise than your advisor and chooses to focus more on that. It's a perfectly legitimate decision and while you and your advisor may wish that more of the class focussed on your work, or even that Prof. Bob should know more about said work, it's time you realized that not everyone is an expert in every field - even if their colleague is a pioneer in that field. You've done your part in trying to educate Prof. Bob and your classmates; the department should have access to a syllabus for this class so they should be able to know what is being taught; and different professors choose to emphasize different things even if it's technically the same class. If your advisor is unhappy with the choice of replacement for his class, let him fight that battle. You really don't want to be the source of information about Bob's performance. I don't see how there is any advantage to doing so. If you really think that there is critical information that is left out or is being distorted, only then should you consider saying something.

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I have to agree with the others. This is something that happens more often then you might think. Since my field is interdisciplinary, it isn't too uncommon for a professor to not be knowledgeable about every single thing. Often times, students will have knowledge to add to the class because they come from differing fields and areas of expertise. Even if this isn't the case here, there is still nothing wrong with a professor having a particular expertise and deciding to focus on that.

Edited by robot_hamster
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if your advisor directly asks you, you shouldn't lie about it to protect another professor's ignorance. i mean, give the whole picture ("prof Bob covers this other area well..."), but don't not be honest. what if your advisor learns from elsewhere how the class is really going?

is the point of academia to fluff egos or to push at the boundaries of knowledge?

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I'd say be honest about the class, but being honest doesn't mean you have to mention his lack of knowledge in one specific area. Cover how the rest of the class is going.

If you're a 2nd year and up grad student, chances are you'll know more in some areas than a number of the faculty they have, especially if it's not right in their area of expertise. And just because it was a technique that someone else in the department was instrumental in developing, doesn't make it any more likely that they'll know it if it's out of their area of speciality. Getting used to gracefully handling people when you know more about what they're talking about than they do is a good skill to gain, because it's just going to happen more and more often from here on out.

Heck, as you dive into your dissertaion project, there will be a lot of areas within it and the literature surrounding it that you'll probably know better than even your advisor. That's part of the point of getting a PhD, to become an expert in a field.

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It's also kind of delicious that students thought the expert's version of the course was too hard and got the alternative: A prof who doesn't know as much.

(Though It's not unusual for more senior grad students to know more than a prof in some niche area.)

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  • 3 weeks later...

I have to agree with the others. This is something that happens more often then you might think. Since my field is interdisciplinary, it isn't too uncommon for a professor to not be knowledgeable about every single thing. Often times, students will have knowledge to add to the class because they come from differing fields and areas of expertise. Even if this isn't the case here, there is still nothing wrong with a professor having a particular expertise and deciding to focus on that.

I agree with this. This has happened numerous times in my core course as my PhD program is interdisciplinary. People are coming in with different backgrounds and professors who teach a certain course are often not experts in that particular course. They teach it because they enjoy the subject or they want to learn more about it. Often times they will not have read the same literature or they have a different perspective. I do not at all think that Prof. Bob is failing as a professor to only have surface knowledge of a subject. As a graduate student you are supposed to be treated like a colleague not a an undergraduate. Therefore I would expect that at some point the graduate students would exceed knowledge in certain areas as they specialize.

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Agreed. Stay out of it. Unless this "discussion" was salient to the underlying point of the course, and not just a tangent - you gain very little for exposing the instructors lack of facility in an area he probably isn't meant to know. There are no doubt a TON of things you know that this instructor (hell many of the instructors) don't know. . .thats what happens when one specializes.

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I am taking an upper division (undergrad) course on food systems right now. My professor is extremely knowledgeable on the topic but given my 15 years experience doing education and advocacy on issues related to food systems there are some aspects where I have more personal knowledge. I really don't see this as a problem.

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look, professors are specialists. just because this prof doesn't specialize in what you do doesn't mean he's inadequate in other areas. every time a professor strays into an area that IS my specialty and IS NOT theirs, i know more than they do. and i should. this is not unusual, this is not a problem, this is not something worth worrying about.

i think you're reading too much into your professor and your advisor's attitudes, but even if you're not, you should still back off. professors have huge egos and you don't need to get in the middle of anything.

the real question i have is, if this course is your advisor's specialty, why AND how on earth did students get him to stop teaching it because it was too difficult? if you're in grad school, you should be getting exposed to the most difficult and involved theories in your field. what is going on with the students that they didn't want the expert teaching his field of expertise? and what department gives their students that sort of power? it seems to me that there's way more faculty politics behind this issue than you're leading us to believe, and your advisor might not be the shining star you've described if he had this course taken away from him. perhaps your professor's skepticism towards your advisor's research is connected to the reason your advisor doesn't teach it anymore.

tread carefully. just do your work in the class, contribute your knowledge and ideas, and leave it at that.

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This thread provides another opportunity for readers to balance the guidance being offered with the experience of the person offering advice. That is, it isn't by accident that fuzzylogician, Eigen, NeuroGal, and StrangeLight are suggesting a very high level of discretion.

Those who do not yet have time in a graduate program might benefit from considering the possibility that there are factors to consider that remain unknown to you before offering advice to graduate students. To put it as politely as I can in my highly caffeinated state, I respectfully ask those of you who are not yet graduate students AND have not faced situations similar to a given thread, to spend time walking the walk before telling others how they should walk.

@LadyL, in the future I suggest that you put your dissent in your back pocket and not do anything in front of students that might undermine the authority of a professor. If it helps, think of your professor as the project manager, the students as clients/stakeholders, and the project is teaching the students the course materials. Your task in this formulation is to support the project manager's efforts to complete the project successfully as he--not you--sees fit. Understand at all times that the "project" is the professor's class, not yours.

If you think the project is going off the tracks, then privately express your concerns to the project manager. Proceed to lay out sustainable solutions to the issue, and then execute what ever adjustments the PM decides to make--if any. Once the professor has made a decision, that's it. Unless the professor is doing something unethical or illegal, that's it.

Here's the deal. As noted above, as a graduate student, you should be in situations where you know more and more than your professors because your mission as a graduate student is to create new knowledge. That is, you are tasked to figure out the limits of what is known and to extend the boundaries, if only incrementally. Some professors do a very good job at staying at the leading edge. Others, as a senior historian frequently complained, "close up shop" as soon as they get tenure. How established professionals makes the choice to stay current or not is up to them, not to graduate students.

Yes, you can comport yourself in such a way that you nudge slumbering professors to wake up. Yet, understand that you do so at your own peril. Unless you know exactly what a professor knows and doesn't know, and unless you really know what it is like when academics start going after each other, you should be very careful before engaging in a game of "stump the band."

HTH.

Edited by Sigaba
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Yes, you can comport yourself in such a way that you nudge slumbering professors to wake up. Yet, understand that you do so at your own peril. Unless you know exactly what a professor knows and doesn't know, and unless you really know what it is like when academics start going after each other, you should be very careful before engaging in a game of "stump the band."

Well stated.

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UGH...please for forgive my spelling errors since my browser stopped spell checking properly.

Not coming from your discipline, I think this is potentially a fairly complicated case. In my field there are three analytical perspectives that everyone should be intimately equated even though being a paradigm warrior has fallen out of vogue. If a professor were to teach a central course in my field and include readings or have knowledge of 2 of these perspectives that would be unpardonable. However, if a professor taught a course and had limited knowledge on a specialist topic that would be entirely expected. Fields simply have too many research tradjectories for even the most well read and current scholar to be up on.

From this perspective, whether I would mention my displeasure with a class would be a reflection of whether I felt that the first type of omission occured. I probably would not be explicit about the prof having limited knowledge about X topic, but would say that I felt there were foundational concepts which either were not handled or were mishandled.

However, methods tend to be an even trickier domain. My field especially likes to fight about how we know things more than about what we know. You may simply have walked into a methodological disagreement. If this be the case, than Prof Bob should be allowed a degree of dubiousness which you seem to allude to. Part of how knowledge develops depends on people find eachother's work suspcious and trying to improve upon it. It is never comfortable to be on the other side of such suspicion but alas it is a professional reality. To continue the dialogue, it might be worth while asking him what perfered method he would use to answer the sort of research question your adviser's preferred method is used for. Perhaps this younger professor is aware of a forefront that you and your adviser are not and that would be useful knowledge to have as a developing researcher.

If Prof. Bob trully is ignorant and not dubious for other reasons, this is perhaps a prefessionalization lesson for you. In general, I agree that it is bad politics to not have at least a passing familiarity with the reseach agendas of people in my department. This true because when we are juniors we do have to respond to the egos above us (regardless of what the academic ideal would have us believe). Moreover, I believe this knowledge has more benefits than the merely political. Advisers who have been of great use to me have not only been those who are very knowledgable themselves, but they have also been able to point me to the appriopriate expert if I what I am working on relates to other domains which they are not as proficient within.

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